Unconstrained Morph

You are Bill Davidman, and you are exercised. This is quite usual.

"You see, exing that clip, what I'm struck by is the dishonesty underneath the apparent frankness," you say to Halwaz. "That last remark. 'There's nothing like an economic incentive to make a corporation do the right thing'." You perform the quote in an exaggerated, smarmy voice. "Well, there's nothing like an economic incentive to make a corporation do the wrong thing, either, and they have plenty."

"The wrong thing being?" asks Halwaz.

"Closing up their source, of course," you say, in a tone which implies, "Did you think I was merely talking about their sacrificing small fuzzy animals?"

"Hold on," says Halwaz, "I thought..."

"Yes, you and most other people, but it's a deception, see? What they call their operating system, GuOS, is open-source and anyone can build on it. But it's really just a set of utilities and applications running on top of closed, compiled code, and it's a breach of their terms of service to try to decompile, reverse-engineer or otherwise get at that hidden lowest layer. They say it's for security, of course."

"And isn't it?"

You look at Halwaz as if she's just seriously posited the existence of the Easter Bunny. "Yeah, right. Look, open code is more secure. This argument has been hashed over and over. With many eyes, all bugs are shallow. If there are any vulnerabilities in the Gu kernel, putting it out where people can see it is the fastest way to get them fixed."

"And not the fastest way to get them exploited?"

"The best programmers are not crackers. What they're doing by closing the kernel - and incorporating an increasing amount of "safety" stuff, application stuff, in it, like that perky little actor who was pretending to be a scientist was talking about - they're systematically undermining the integrity of the entire system. That, and of course protecting their IP, which is another way of saying, their monopoly. Nobody can make Gu without a license from Adaptable as long as nobody knows exactly how they make it, and as long as they're hand-in-glove with governments who are clinging to an outdated notion of central control. Control is distributed nowadays, hello?"

"So, you would allow anyone who wants to to make Gu? Gu without safety restraints built in, if that was what they wanted to make?"

You become solemn.

"Susan, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we for freedom, or against it? As long as Gu is fettered, we are also fettered, in that same degree. As long as the economic interests of Adaptable Materials Corporation are what ultimately controls Gu, there's a level of creativity that we simply can't access. And we have no idea what lives there. None. It could be something that would transform human life completely, that would allow it to pass into the next phase of evolution."

"Or it could, much more likely, be something that would destroy human life completely," says Halwaz, enraging you.

"You know what? The rhetoric concerning terrorism is itself terrorism - it's used to terrorize the populace and keep them sheeplike and submissive. Control is what it's all about, and that control shouldn't reside with Adaptable. It belongs to all of us."

"With 'us' in this scenario being what, a self-appointed technocracy?" asks Halwaz, and smiles. She is clearly enjoying herself, much to your irritation.

"Absolutely not! You're setting up straw persons, Halwaz, implying a conspiracy where none exists. The only conspiracy here is the conspiracy between big government and big business, and there's nothing secret about it - you only have to look around you without rose-colored spectacles for five seconds. Openness means freedom, and if that comes at the cost of shifting economic and political power outward from where it's increasingly concentrated, in the hands of the elites, then so be it."

Cut back to Halwaz's viewpoint. Davidman, a chunky man, is almost as red as his cape and looks ready to draw his (Gu) katanas and have at you; sweat is dripping down his forehead from under his flying goggles.

"Thank you, Bill," you say, in a "this interview is concluded" sort of manner.

"You can't just cut me off, Halwaz, you..."

You cut him off.

"Intellectual property, yes, indeed," says Jacob Merrilees, an intellectual property lawyer. His dark hair is graying at the temples in a distinguished manner that complements his charcoal suit and long, slender, expressive hands. "At one stage we switched to calling it NTA - non-tangible assets - but with the advent of Gu we've mostly switched back, because Gu makes the intangible tangible."

"Can you unpack that a little?" you (Halwaz) say.

"Certainly. Gu is, essentially, a tool or means for causing digital representations of solid objects to be present in what we usually think of as the real world. It's a technology for reification. We've had technology for digital-to-real-world conversion for a long time now; printers, followed eventually by 3-D printers, various sound technologies. And, of course, the corresponding real-world-to-digital converters: scanners, cameras, microphones. But Gu takes it to a new level. Now you can capture a 3-D image of a solid object, any object, using a camera that costs - I think you can get them for under a hundred dollars these days. Any computer is then capable of running utilities which are distributed for free that will convert that image into a form capable of being translated into Gu. And so, anyone who can afford enough Gu - and that, too, is getting cheaper all the time - can have that solid object at effectively no cost."

You're getting impatient with his explanation, and shift in your chair. He notices.

"All of which seems obvious," he says. "But a change of degree is also, in this case, a change of kind. Taking a photograph of, let's say, a Porsche gets you a picture of a Porsche, and that's never been regulated. Firstly because you couldn't regulate it, not effectively, and secondly because you can't drive a picture of a Porsche. But taking a 3-D image of a Porsche and reproducing it in Gu on a cheaper auto frame? You can drive that. You're not simply taking the work of the Porsche designers and appreciating it or putting it into a form where it's effectively an advertisement for their product, spreading the meme, if you like." He looks at you intently to see if you've noticed his buzzword (which he's used incorrectly). "You're making use of their design work in a way which benefits you tangibly, but doesn't return any tangible benefit to them. And this is what is sometimes called piracy."

"Surely, though, this has been going on for decades," you say. "I mean, my uncle came back from a trip to Malaysia in the 90s with a couple of cheap Calvin Klein knockoff shirts. He didn't realize they were knockoffs, or even CK, he just liked the shirts. What's the difference between that and your Porsche scenario?"

"The difference, Ms Halwaz, is that those shirts had to be made in a factory. There was a production infrastructure behind them. If Calvin Klein had wanted to pursue legal avenues, there was a company profiting from production of the shirts which could be sued - perhaps successfully, perhaps not, but there was one. But I'm talking about individuals copying things, for no personal profit, and distributing them. It's much more equivalent to, say, music filesharing."

"Yes, and the music industry - and all the entertainment industries, in fact - have evolved and adapted to the new realities that creates. Why is Gu any different?"

"It's not. But in this context, 'evolved and adapted' has meant 'got used to much smaller profits and the reality of piracy'. The industrial design industry has had to do the same, and they're hurting."

Cut to Pat Finnan, a sculptor who works in Gu. He is a stocky, middle-aged man with a bald head and a large mustache.

"Oh, the poor design industry. We feel their pain. Bulldust, Mr Merrilees. Industrial designers, apart from a few at the top end, used to mostly work for salaries. They saw very little of the profit from a typical large company's product, much of the price of which consisted of manufacturing and distribution costs. They certainly didn't get to share in those profits, no matter how good their work might be. Thanks to Gu, that's changing, and we who work in tangible media are finally catching up with the musicians and the filmmakers and the writers and all the other beneficiaries of the digital revolution."

"And you're benefiting how?"

"We're benefiting because when production and distribution costs almost nothing, and there's no need to do an industrial quantity of something that you might sell one, five or twenty of, you can go ahead and do works without worrying about going into debt and being stuck with a warehouse full of unwanted statues. Storage takes, effectively, no space and hence no money. You have no inventory and, once you have your gear, no overheads to speak of. So it's great for someone starting out who isn't sure how they're going to do. And then if things do go well, you don't have too much trouble scaling up either.

"And you can experiment. I can make a sculpture, decide I don't like it, and change it, and I've wasted no materials and I don't need to get rid of the old version. It works for consumer goods as well, by the way. If you do a new design, a better design, your customers can upgrade, without throwing the old one out. Which is great for the customers and probably not quite so great for the manufacturers. There's been a huge power shift since the turn of the century, and also a huge blurring of the lines between producer and consumer. I manage several public art installations, for example, which are truly public art - they are art in public and art by the public. Anyone can submit a digital file and have their sculpture on public display, and it rotates among them, morphs from one to the next. On one of them, we've implemented voting so that people can tell us which ones they like, and those ones get more frequent rotation. We're going to do the same with the others soon." While he speaks, we see the public art in question, on a street corner in Milan. Everything from the unsophisticated but direct sculptures of schoolchildren to achingly beautiful geometric abstracts are morphing on top of a pedestal which displays the artists' handles and a couple of links to vote particular pieces up or down. Passers-by stop to watch, and vote using grayware or netphones.

"So, from your viewpoint, it's a good time to be making a living as a designer?"

"It is, because while in theory it's possible to do work and never get paid because people simply take what you've done, in practice that's balanced out by the people who want to exchange value for value, who will pay you even if they don't have to, just because they think you're cool and your stuff is cool. The corporations aren't seeing that, because nobody thinks a corporation is a cool person who deserves compensation. But we see it all the time. We rely on it."

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This entry was posted in art, Bill Davidman, intellectual property, Jacob Merrilees, lawyer, open-source, Pat Finnan, piracy, security. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Unconstrained Morph

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    I’ll leave looking up the reference as an exercise for the reader too. (I just did, to check that it would be easy; type “cape” into the search box at XKCD, you’ll find it.)So far this post gets the prize for Most Likely to be Edited out of All Recognition in the Final Version. I’m not happy with it; it’s being too clever. The Digby Duke segment is mostly from my original short story, and will stay, though it needs strengthening. Bill Davidman may go, or may just get upgraded with extreme prejudice.

  2. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    Oh, and believe it or not I’d forgotten that the goggles were actually part of the original XKCD reference. I thought I made them up.Memory’s a funny thing.

  3. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    The two comments above don’t entirely make sense any more, not for this post, anyway, because I have edited as I was threatening to do. This post is now much longer, and Digby Duke is pushed over to the next one.

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